Recently appointed to head Maui County's Film Office, Harry Donenfeld, says, "Now that I've got the position, my job is giving other people my job."
The new hire at the Maui County Office of Economic Development, Donenfeld is hoping to jump-start this glamorous aspect of the island economy. Still getting his bearings in his fifth-floor office in One Main Plaza, his job description involves working with film, television and new media companies. He's charged with attracting new productions to Maui, Lanai, Molokai and potentially Kahoolawe, but also with developing an indigenous film industry -from training and infrastructure all the way to getting the film "in the can."
Appointed by Mayor Alan Arakawa less than a month ago, the 45-year-old former TV producer, underwater photographer, carpenter and global explorer sits behind the desk left vacant when the new administration didn't reappoint former Maui Film Commissioner Benita Brazier.
Harry Donenfeld reports the Maui County Film Office is open for business. Reach him at 270-7710, film firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Maui News / RICK CHATENEVER photo
Donenfeld speaks highly of Brazier's accomplishments. But, he says, the job has changed.
"We reopened the film office because there's so much activity going on," says the former producer of the children's TV series "Bingo & Molly."
"The scope of the position has changed - we changed the job title to reflect that. We have been mandated to create an industry rather than facilitate one. We are going to be more proactive."
Fueled by well-publicized talk of building a new studio on Maui from Relativity Media mogul and new Maui resident Ryan Kavanaugh, along with Kavanaugh's lobbying efforts with state legislators to create tax incentives to sweeten the deal, Donenfeld reports he has been deluged with industry interest in doing production here.
"Since I've been sitting in this chair, in the last week and a half, we've had 10 to 15 film and TV requests." They've come not only from high-profile Hollywood TV series, but as far away as Korea."
Among them was the permit to film a segment of CBS' hit series "Hawaii Five-0" on Lanai last weekend.
"The new administration was not expecting the flood of requests the industry has sent our way," he reports.
"Film and TV have traditionally been recession-proof. Maui County is primed to be a go-to location."
While a major studio may be a grand dream, a soundstage - perhaps on more than one Maui County island -is within the realm of possibilities.
The door swings both ways. As much as he's in the hot seat for expediting the permits and countless other details that come with major studio film production on location, he is just as committed to training, retraining and creating the kinds of jobs that will mean Valley Isle youth can establish productive careers here.
"I will consider myself a success if I've employed anybody from Maui," he says. This entails getting a handle on the talent and resources already here, "then taking the population of Maui and giving them alternatives - work as extras or retraining for positions from grips to hair and makeup."
Coordinating with local schools and UH-Maui College, he seeks "to create an environment in which children will want to learn. Kids go off to college, get experience and come back and get a job."
As a first step, he is planning a "round table" of Maui industry professionals next month as an opportunity for networking. Further down the line are hopes to develop a new production guide to local talent and resources on Maui.
He says he wants to see "who we have on Maui, what they have to offer and how we can promote it."
The comedy "Get a Job" is a textbook example of how that might be done. Written and directed by Brian Kohne, produced and filmed entirely on Maui with local talent led by musical artists Willie K and Eric Gilliom, cameos by noted local residents like Mick Fleetwood and Willie Nelson, lots of local supporting players and extras, the rollicking comedy has won prizes at four film festivals to date. (See the story above for details about its upcoming screening at the MACC.)
"It's a local production that's getting awards all over the place - perfect!" says Donenfeld.
From talk of developing a major studio here to catalyzing a homegrown industry, Donenfeld relishes taking the seat in the middle of all the action. A master carpenter and acclaimed photographer, he's someone who's always got to be building something, he says. But he also refers to himself as "a blunt instrument" as he moves full-speed ahead.
His family history prepared him for this new job, he says.
Google his grandfather - also named Harry Donenfeld - to read a novelistic saga of a poor Jewish immigrant who worked his way up from delivering magazines and comic books to newsstands to start a publishing empire and eventually buy the rights to a comic strip hero named Superman for less than $400 in the 1930s.
The grandfather's son, Irwin, became editor-in-chief for the comic book series, and eventually steered Superman to Warner Bros. in the early '70s where he ushered in the current age of comic-book superheros on the big screen.
For Maui's Harry Donenfeld, Superman isn't a fantasy. The iconic superhero is way beyond that -a recurrent, inescapable theme running through Harry's life in ways few of us can imagine.
There's something so perfect, he concludes, at now finding himself in the hot seat, right in the middle of the action on a magical tropical island whose namesake is sometimes referred to as the Hawaiian superman.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com